The town of Bethlehem, known all over the world as the place where Jesus Christ was born, is today more of a bustling tourist resort than the holy place you would expect. It is full of tourists, and souvenir shops, restaurants and bars which are part of the services that mark the city. Bethlehem and its satellite towns, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala have many Churches and Religious Institutions, convents, schools and hospitals. The Greek Orthodox have 15 churches and institutions. The Roman Catholics have 25. There are 8 Protestant churches. The Syriac Orthodox have one church and the Greek Catholics have two churches. The Ethiopians and the Copts have one each. There are also a number of Mosques; the most important one is the Mosque of Umar across the square from the Church of the Nativity. This mosque was established in 1849.
You will find numerous foreign institutions in the district; some are of a religious nature, and others are not. Among them are the Holy Family Hospital that belongs to the Knights of Malta, The Christian Society for the Holy Land Hospital, Efeta Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, The Children's Village SOS, Caritas Children's Hospital, Sira (a Swedish Institute for the Handicapped), the Salesians Technical School and many others.
Modern Bethlehem is an agricultural market and trade center closely linked to nearby Jerusalem. It lies at a distance of 10 kms (6 miles) to the south of the Old City of Jerusalem. It is situated on a mountainous site, 777 meters (2600 feet) above the level of the Mediterranean Sea and overlooks its surroundings. Its surface resembles the shape of a semi circle. From the west, the town of Bethlehem is bounded by the town of Beit Jala and from the east by the town of Beit Sahour. From the north it is bordered by Jerusalem and the village of Sur Bahir and from the south by Solomon's Pools and the villages of al-Khader and Urtas. Forty thousand live in the administrative limits of the municipality of Bethlehem and five thousand in the old center of the town. As a symbol of the increased intermingling of the region's people, beside Arabic, the native language, English is widely spoken. French, German and Spanish are spoken too.
The year's highlight in Bethlehem is Christmas. There are actually three celebrations: the Western observance occurs on December 25, according to the Gregorian calendar; the Orthodox is celebrated on January 6, according to the older Julian calendar; and finally the Armenian on January 19.
On these days, the town is festive with lights and banners, and the churches are full of worshippers and visitors. Carols pour from loud-speakers in the crowded Manger Square, and brisk trade is done in the carved olive-wood and mother-of-pearl souvenirs for which Bethlehem is renowned.
Among the exciting aspects of Bethlehem's Christmas are the parades of Palestinian scouts through the town of Bethlehem. They mass in Manger Square to greet each Patriarch on his arrival from Jerusalem. Some scout processions start from Rachel's tomb and march to Manger Square. Others gather at Star Square for a shorter journey to Manger Square. Troops from various sectarian groupings march together in front of the Patriarchs' processions through the winding streets of town, with local people and foreign pilgrims, crowded together. When each Patriarch meets the dignitaries and then enters the church, the scouts disperse. The climax on Christmas eve for the Roman Catholics is the elaborate midnight Mass in the presence of dignitaries and diplomats. Other churches have their own special services in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. On Christmas day many people go to the Shepherds' Field Church in Beit Sahour to attend afternoon prayers in the old subterranean grotto.
Source: Bethlehem 2000: A Guide to Bethlehem and its Surroundings, by Sawsan Qustandi Shomali, Flam-Druck Wagener GmbH, Waldbrol, 1997.